Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Dutch Painting by Charles H. Caffin
The Story of Dutch Painting by  Charles H. Caffin

The End of the Old

O N the 25th of October, 1555, Charles V abdicated the imperial crown, ceding Spain and the Netherlands to his favorite son, Philip II. The event proved to be the prologue of a drama, which in its immediate aspects involved the decay of Spain and the growth of Holland, but in its wider significance was to be the beginning of a new era.

For the modern world dates from the seventeenth century, and its pioneers were the Hollanders of that period. Practically everything that we recognize to-day as characteristic of the modern spirit in politics, religion, science, society, industry, commerce, and art has its prototype amid that sturdy people; being either the cause or the product of their struggle for independence and their self-development. Nor, in paying honor to the Dutch, need we attempt to suggest that they were the inventors of these characteristics. Most of the latter were, so to say, in the air. In the progress of things they had been evolved. But our debt to the Hollanders is that they attracted them and gave them practical application, and thus set the world upon a definite path of new progress. It is particularly with the newness of their art that we are here concerned, but we will try to study it in its relation to the material and mental environment of the nation itself, of whose newness it was so immediate a product and so manifest an expression.

For it is in this way that the art of every country may be studied with most interest and profit. Although there will appear from time to time certain individual artists, whose genius cannot be satisfactorily correlated to its environment, but will indeed, as in the case of Rembrandt's, seem to be actually contradictory to it, yet even they can be more fully comprehended through the very contrast that they offer to the mass of their contemporaries, whose relation to their environment is readily discernible. Apropos of this customary connection between the artist and the spirit of his time, may be quoted that phrase of Richard Wagner's, that all great art is produced in response to a common and collective need on the part of the community. It may serve as an excellent touchstone for testing the quality of this new Dutch art which we are to study, so let us for a moment examine its face value, leaving the fuller application of its meaning to all the subsequent pages of this book.

In Wagner's mind great art, as he conceived it, stood out in clear contrast against a background of less art, of art which is produced in response to some more restricted impulse than that of a common and collective need of the people; for example, in catering to the whims of fashion. Such was the major part of the art of France produced in the last days before the Revolution. The great mass of the people were too abased by ill rule and exactions to have any consciousness but that of hunger, any common collective need but to fill their bellies. The only articulate demand to reach the artists was from the ephemeral swarm of courtiers, sycophants, and, as we should say to-day, "grafters," who buzzed in splendor and profligacy at court. For a moment the glamour of this life inspired a great artist, Watteau, who, however, it is to be noted, was a foreigner. What he himself was he owed to Flanders. To him the glamour of the French court was but a pageant, a spectacle passing before his eyes, leaving his heart and conscience untouched. When, however, artists of French birth, reared in the home environment, followed in his steps, they revealed nothing of Watteau's idealistic detachment from the grossness of the theme, but became purveyors to the shallow profligacy of their patrons. And to this day Van Loo, Boucher, and Fragonard have no place with other old masters in the hearts of the people; they are still the favorites of fashion. Nor was it until the upheaval of the Revolution had precipitated the gathering consciousness of a common and collective need on the part of the people, that French art in the nineteenth century began to develop a vital response. Moreover, what was characteristic of French art during the eighteenth century was generally symptomatic of the art of the whole of Europe. The latter had little or no creative force, was essentially an art of more or less feeble and perfunctory imitation. For the age itself was non-creative; a period of exhaustion after the strenuousness of the seventeenth century, or of the slow forming of new alinements after the shattering of the old ones; of speculation and doubts rather than of convictions.

So the artists, feeling no spur in the needs of the moment, fell to imitating the Renaissance artists of Italy. Among them, if we may anticipate the end of our present story, were the Dutch. They, too, had exhausted the immediate impulse of their own environment. War had made them a world-power, and peace brought them the foreign entanglements that maintenance of such a position entailed. They were no longer under the compulsion of an immense centripetal energy, a nation concentrated upon its own self-reliance. They began to spread themselves as cosmopolitans, aping the fashions of the rest of the world; and, as the fashion of the period was to be Italianate, so the artists of Holland, lacking at home the momentum of a common and collective need, ceased to be a school of great original painters, and became instead clumsy imitators of the splendors and elevation of the Italian masters of the Renaissance.

After this glance at the nature and cause of decline of Dutch art in the eighteenth century, we may return with a better appreciation of what is ahead of us in our study—the establishment in Holland in the seventeenth century of a new art, the product of a new nation; of a group of original and distinguished painters who formed, as Fromentin says, "the last of the great schools, perhaps the most original, certainly the most local."

The course of our story, therefore, spreads before us. It is to discover in what respect the Dutch School of the seventeenth century was great, how it was original, and in what way its genius grew out of and responded to the common and collective need of the Dutch people of the period. Meanwhile there are the previous fifty years of the sixteenth century to be accounted for, which brings us back to the prologue of the drama, the abdication of Charles V.

That monarch, born in Ghent and educated in Flanders, had a special feeling of regard for his "dear Netherlanders." Incidentally, they were the richest jewel in the imperial crown, and he had drawn from them annually two fifths of the enormous revenue that he squandered in wars of ambition elsewhere. He had, moreover, proved his love for them by systematic slaughtering of dissenters, that the remnant might be preserved within the fold of the Catholic Church. It was Brussels, therefore, that he selected as the scene of his abdication. Formerly the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, it had been under imperial rule the seat of government of the vice-regents of the Netherlands; a city of royal and princely palaces, immediately surrounded by parks and game-forests, and fields and gardens, teeming with opulence; the royal center of a group of cities. Of these Antwerp was the commercial chief, the greatest emporium of trade in Europe, with an exchange in which five thousand merchants daily congregated, and a port where five hundred vessels daily made their entrance or departure. It was the distributing-point for the imports from the East and for the products of the Netherlands: textiles of most sumptuous fabrics as well as of plain cloths and linens, works of gold and silver craftsmanship, agricultural and dairy produce from the rich polders of the northern provinces, and fish from a hundred thriving towns and villages along the coast.

So when the emperor, enfeebled by excesses of action and appetite, felt his grip of power slackening, and determined to transfer this people of three million souls, the most industrious, versatile, and liberty-loving in the world, from his own pocket to that of his son, he saw to it that the proceeding should be conducted with a pageantry of ceremonial worthy of the occasion.

It was enacted in the hall of the renowned Order of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, the walls of which were hung with superb tapestries from the looms of Arras, representing the Biblical story of Gideon. The floor was occupied by official representatives of the provinces, clad in the sumptuous bravery of costume that distinguished this country and the times. Upon the dais at one end, beneath a splendid canopy, three chairs awaited the principals in the drama. Precisely at the stroke of three, the emperor entered from the adjoining chapel. Strange whim of Fate, he supported his gout-ridden body by leaning on the arm of the man who was eventually to be chief in undoing the policy that this day inaugurated—William, Count of Orange. Behind the emperor came Philip, and the regent, Queen Mary of Hungary, the "Christian widow" admired by Erasmus, who on one occasion had written to her brother, the emperor, that "in her opinion all heretics, whether repentant or not, should be prosecuted with such severity as that error might be at once extinguished, care being only taken that the provinces were not entirely depopulated." Following the principals, appeared the Knights of the Fleece in full regalia, and a retinue of nobles, many of them, Egmont, Brederode, Berlaymont, Aerschot, and others, destined to figure in the subsequent drama of the Netherlands.

After a long oration by a member of the Privy Council, depicting the bodily infirmities of the emperor, his great zeal for his people's welfare, and the particulars of the cession he was about to make, Charles himself read a long recapitulation of his wars and triumphs, dwelt upon his failing strength, and commended his successor to the good will and allegiance of his "dear Netherlanders." At the conclusion of the speech the whole audience was melted to tears and the emperor himself wept like a child. Philip knelt in reverence, as his father made the sign of the cross above his head and blessed him in the name of the Holy Trinity. Then, while the assembled host applauded he rose to his feet, ruler by the grace of God, vice the emperor, of the Netherlands, Spain, and her American possessions. But he could not speak the language of the Netherlands; his acceptance of their allegiance and his own promises of regard for their interests had to be made through an interpreter.

Philip, as he assumed possession of the lives of millions, is characterized by Motley as "a small meager man, much below middle height, with thin legs, a narrow chest, and the shrinking, timid air of an habitual invalid. In face, he was the living image of his father, having the same broad forehead and blue eye, with the same aquiline, but better-proportioned, nose. He had the same heavy hanging lip, with a vast mouth and monstrously protruding lower jaw. His complexion was fair, his hair light and thin, his beard yellow, short, and pointed. He had the aspect of a Fleming, but the loftiness of a Spaniard. His demeanor in public was still, silent, almost sepulchral. He looked habitually on the ground when he conversed, was chary of speech, embarrassed and even suffering in manner. This was ascribed partly to a natural haughtiness which he had occasionally endeavored to overcome, and partly to habitual pains in the stomach, occasioned by his inordinate fondness for pastry. Such," adds Motley, "was the personal appearance of the man who was to receive into his single hand the destinies of half the world; whose single will was, for the future, to shape the fortunes of every individual then present, of many more in Europe, America, and at the ends of the earth, and of countless millions yet unborn."

Yet it may be doubted whether in the assembly present on that memorable occasion there was a single person who even dimly perceived the enormity of this idea. That a nation, without being consulted, should be transferred like a herd of cattle from one owner to another, for his own use and emolument and even to be slaughtered at his will, probably seemed a natural and right proceeding. The fact emphasizes the immense and profound change that during the ensuing fifty years was to take possession of men's imagination. The seventeenth century was to see a new idea of the rights of nations and of the relations that should govern a people and its rulers; the commencement, in fact, of a new era of thought in its bearing on life. But as yet the minds of all engaged in the ceremony were possessed with the old thought, the brute survival of Roman imperialism and of the medieval conflict of rival autocrats; the claim of a pope to exercise supreme sway over the consciences of innumerable millions, and the contention of temporal potentates for absolute control over the souls and bodies of their subjects. Thought and life had been, and still were, based upon the supremacy of the favored individual.

Let us note the effect which this idea had had upon the art of painting, that we may better appreciate the change which is to come over the latter, as the new idea begins to penetrate life and thought. How did painting, notably the fullest expression of it in Italian art, respond to the common and collective need of men's lives and thoughts? In what way did it embody the idea of the propriety and desirableness of the subordination of all to the will of one individual?

In the first place, the idea was fostered by the Church. This is no place to attempt to discuss, on the one hand, how far the Church in upholding this doctrine was actuated by the desire of saving souls or, on the other hand, to what degree it benefited the world. It is sufficient to recall what an immense hold the Church had over the lives and thoughts of men, and that to establish and maintain it she employed painting as a handmaiden. Thus, in response to the common and collective need of the people, the favored subjects of painting were the doctrines and story of the Christian faith. The interiors of churches were converted into vast picture-books for the edification of the people, as well as into sumptuous shrines for the celebration of the mystic drama of the Mass. And, corresponding to the stately ceremonial of the latter, its superb accompaniments of lights and vestments, and its imposing spectacle of ordered ritual, the altarpieces grew to be miracles of stately composition; arrangements of form and color, light and shade, built up with an artifice as imposing and moving in its effects as that which had elaborated the Mass itself. So closely is the genius of these paintings a product of the Catholic Church's particular mode of emphasizing its faith that it is evident, when men shall separate themselves from such exposition of the faith, their common and collective need will not demand pictures of this character. This will be exemplified in the case of the Dutch. They will need religious pictures, but neither of a ceremonial character, nor, in view of their idea of worshiping in spirit and in temples not made with hands, for the purposes of decorating their houses of God. Their religious pictures will be of a kind to affect the thoughts and lives of the people in a simpler and more unpretentious way, perhaps more intimately and personally.

But, while the splendor and dignity of the Italian religious pictures were inspired by the religious fervor that had continued from medieval times, they also reflected the new impulse which had made possible the Renaissance: the New Learning, the study of the classics, particularly of Hellenic culture, preëminently of Plato. From the latter, scholars and artists alike had learned to think in terms of the abstract. To the artists had been revealed the abstract idea of beauty—of beauty as at once the symbol and the expression of the highest good in life and thought. They were no longer satisfied simply to represent the sacred story and doctrines; they would have their pictures beautiful, independently of the subject; they would give the subject itself a higher significance through the abstract beauty of the compositions in which it was embodied. Hence the principles of technical distinction that began to sublimate their pictures, until they reached a degree of abstract as well as material elevation that has never been, and, one imagines, will never be surpassed. For it was the offspring of two motives that may never again be found in wedlock—the religious need and the need of expressing the enthusiasm for the cult of the classics. The former may still be operative, but the latter has been dissipated in the spread of the democratic idea.

And what was the principle upon which was based the classic ideal of abstract beauty, as it expressed itself in Italian painting? It was the supreme motive of the human form, as being, in its harmony of proportions and its rhythm of movement, the symbol and expression of abstract beauty. Again it happened that the teaching of the Church conjoined with the speculations of scholars. This world was thought to be the center of the universe; man was the axis of the world. Even God was interpreted as concerned chiefly in the rewarding or punishment of man, while to man all other created things were subordinate. To the imagination of the Renaissance, as of the Middle Ages, man towered up supreme against the mere background of the universe. Small wonder if some men, seizing the logic of this, aspired to be the owners of the bodies and souls of their fellows, and scarcely less that the others acquiesced! It was a rôle not only for popes, emperors, and kings to play upon the stage of the world, but for every princeling and duke to strut through on some smaller platform of a municipality. It justified the Medici in their own eyes, and made them almost of necessity the patrons of artists who had accepted the supremacy of such as they for the leading motive of their art. The painters, in fact, accepting the exclusive aristocracy of the human figure, adopting as their prime motive its ideal perfection, and building up compositions in which the figures were arranged in conformity with the rhythms and proportions derived from such ideal perfection, necessarily achieved an art that was essentially aristocratic, fitted for the temples of an aristocratic church and the palaces of the lay aristocracy. Yet, to repeat, it was also inspired by a great religious need, so that it was fitted for the masses as well as for their rulers.

Such was the great art of the world at the period when Charles V abdicated. Yet even by 1555 the tide has begun to ebb. Of all the great Florentines Michelangelo alone remains, and he has ceased from painting and sculpture. The giant brood survives only in the persons of Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto. The last named will live out nearly the remainder of the century, after which the art of Italy will be in the hands of "mannerists" and "eclectics," groups whose very names suggest that they are but fanning a flame already dead. Only the "naturalists" will have something in them of the modern spirit.

Meanwhile among the painters of the Netherlands there is as yet little or nothing of the distinction that will grow between Hollander and Flemish. The principal seat of painting is Antwerp, and its school has already been Italianized. Even Lucas van Leyden, the personal friend of Dürer, and at first an original genius inclined toward Gothic feeling, had before his death in 1533 gone over to Italian influence. Admirably representative of this influence is the large triptych by Barend van Orley, now in the Antwerp Museum. Its central panel shows The Day of Judgment.  In the vault of the sky Christ appears, enthroned upon a rainbow, his feet resting on a globe. He is encircled by clouds, below which a ring of angels supports a cross, while to the right and left are seraphs sounding their trumps, and all the distant air is aquiver with angelic forms. Hovering midway between earth and sky is St. Michael, the archangel. Down on the earth are the myriads of the risen: the good on one side, in orderly bands, lifting hands and heads toward heaven, and on the other the lost souls in a tumult of flames and smoke. In the side panels the works of mercy are represented; grave personages ministering to the sick and the halt and the blind and the dying, in a spot dignified by monumental architecture, above which, seated on clouds, are ranged the Madonna and the saints. The superb composition; unquestionably suggested by that of the Disputá,  is one which Raphael himself need not have been ashamed to design. But the figures that appear large in the foreground exhibit a realism of nudity and an individuality of separate characterization that bespeak the artist's Flemish origin. Notwithstanding his Italian training he had still retained his racial instincts for naturalism. But this fine work was finished in 1525, and the artist died in 1542.

At the date we have selected as our starting-point, the leading artists were Jan van Scovel, Antonio Moro, and Pieter Pourbus; the last of Flemish birth, the others born in the northern provinces. Though Pourbus essayed religious subjects, the finest examples of which are in Bruges, he is best known as a portrait-painter, in which branch Moro also excelled. The latter, after studying under Scovel, visited Italy, and upon his return was recommended to Charles V, who despatched him to Madrid and Portugal, and later to England to make a portrait of Queen Mary, the wife of Philip II. Subsequently he was in the latter's service in Spain, but returned to Brussels, where he found a patron in the Duke of Alva. His portraits are distinguished by evidence of truth to life as well as by their masterly, if somewhat careful, handling. But it was Scovel himself whose life best illustrated the tendencies of the time.

Born in Alkmaar in 1495, he studied in Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Utrecht; then in Cologne, Speyer, Strasburg, Carinthia, and Venice, from which last he went to Jerusalem. Returning to Europe, he lived for a while in Rome, where he was appointed superintendent of the Vatican Gallery by his countryman, Pope Adrian IV. On the latter's death he returned to the Netherlands, living by turns in Utrecht and Haarlem, in one of which cities he died in 1562. Greatly influenced by his sojourn in Rome, he was the first of the strictly Dutch painters to absorb the Italian influence. Among several examples of his style in the Municipal Museum of Haarlem the most remarkable is a portrait group of twelve Knights Templars, with palm branches in their hands, indicating that they have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is noteworthy both for its characterization and as an early instance of what was to be a special feature of Dutch art—the portrait group. His subject pictures, mostly on religious themes, have the elegant, non-committal character of work that was inspired by outside impulse, though possibly in the landscape backgrounds one may find a foretaste of the Dutch regard for truth of natural surroundings. His work, indeed, like his life, exemplifies the lack of originality and conviction in the temper of the times. It was a period of suspense, succeeding to the vigorous realities of old ideals, scarcely ready for the development of the new. It was a prologue to a new era.

The new art, when it arrives, will be in response to a new common and collective need of a people, the product, in fact, of a new attitude of thought toward life. In place of the aristocratic it will be democratic, concerned with the rights of all instead of the privileges of the few. It will no longer set man in a pose of artificial supremacy against the background of the universe, but will begin to take account of his environment and to discover his true relation to it. It will be an era, not of magnificent mendacity and superb hypotheses, but of patient inquiry into the facts of life and of resolute adjustment of life to the facts. It will, indeed, be the dawning of the scientific era. And so firmly will it have taken hold of the thought and life of the then separated provinces of the north, that, even as they have parted absolutely from the old religion and politics, still adhered to by the southern states, so they will be impervious to the influence of the art by which the latter continue to be represented. When, fifty years from our opening date, Rubens shall return from Italy to give a brief lease of lustier life to the Italian motive by the vigor of his Flemish genius, the Hollanders of the seventeenth century will be absolutely unaffected by his influence. Their art will be as closed to the invasion of his masterful genius as their country is to the inroads of the German Ocean. Theirs will be an art not only new and original, but certainly most local.

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